Catholic Ireland’s Confession Box – Irish Times Initiative

Yesterday I posted a blog that asked the question: ‘Is the Catholic Church Losing the Irish People?’ Coincidentally, yesterday’s Irish Times ran a lengthy and soul-searching reflection by Derek Scally on a similar topic.

Scally, it seems, has concluded that yes, the Catholic Church already has lost the Irish people. But he argues that it is dishonest to simply blame the ‘institutional church,’ concluding his article with a call for people to submit ‘confessions’ to an online ‘confession box’, via the Irish Times. This initiative is grounded in the conviction that the Irish people should reflect on what went wrong in their relationship with the Catholic Church:


Do you have a story of Catholic Ireland you’d like to share? Something you saw at the time but didn’t say? A lingering memory of the controlling mechanism and how you responded to it? Or a confession – of complicity or failure – you want to get off your shoulders? Email us at Where requested, your anonymity will be protected.

Scally’s article is headlined with quotations that reference the clerical abuse scandals, something I did not mention in my post yesterday, but which cast a shadow over everything written about the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The headline quotes certainly catch the eye:

‘His house was always filled with children but as a teenager I shrugged it off’: ‘It wasn’t just priests or politicians who kept Catholic Ireland alive. It was also us, the Irish people.’

Scally, a correspondent based in Berlin, shares his personal story of growing up in a parish served by Fr Paul McGennis, an abusing priest. He counts himself among those who saw something strange about Fr McGennis, but did nothing about it.

Scally’s personal story is the springboard for a prolonged comparison between the authoritarianism and conformity of Catholic Ireland, with that of communist East Germany.

I recommend reading Scally’s article in full, but here are a few snippets:

How many of us, as John Banville put it, knew but didn’t know? Saw but didn’t see? How many people in Ireland, I wonder, still nurse a silent sense of unease that their small piece of the clerical abuse puzzle, had it been shared, might have prevented bad things happening to others?

It is 20 years since McGennis vanished in disgrace, and St Monica’s has been in decline ever since. Altar servers are a thing of the past, even at Christmas Mass. And there is no time or space in a 35-minute express lane service for reflection on the Catholic faith, or on Catholic Ireland.

Whatever happened to Catholic Ireland, anyway? A century ago Yeats told us how romantic Ireland was dead and gone, and with O’Leary in the grave. But where is Catholic Ireland’s grave? Was it even buried? Who attended the funeral? How did Catholic Ireland live, work, collapse?

For years I’ve carried around with me these unanswered questions about our national phantom. A while back they bubbled to the surface in the unlikeliest of places: a Berlin museum dedicated to the history of the vanished East Germany.

Standing before photographs showing members of the socialist state’s many mass organisations, marching around in sweaty uniforms, it was easy to feel superior for having escaped such a fate.

Then I thought of the Catholic boy scouts, the sweaty altar boy gear, the priests in polyester. Squinting my eyes, images of May Day marches in East Berlin looked quite like images of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress or the 1979 papal visit. And how familiar to someone raised in Catholic Ireland the negative aspects of East Germany highlighted in the museum: a closed, conservative, narrow society with enormous social pressure to conform.

… Despite crucial differences, both East Germany and Catholic Ireland exerted control over its citizens with institutions and ideology so powerful that they prolonged the states’ existence long after the majority had stopped believing.

Yet, of the two countries, only Germany is making a methodical effort to come to terms with its recent past. There are countless museums and foundations offering exhibitions, publications and events that put the former East in its social, historical and cultural context. Berlin’s state-run museum performs a remarkable task: posing questions that turn the mirror on visitors.

… As Ireland moves from remembering the 1916 Rising to the subsequent battles over independence, the time has come to locate and exhume the shallow, unmarked grave of Catholic Ireland. The cause of death has been established, but we still need to discuss the reasons – positive and negative – behind its long life.

Irish people may have replaced Sunday Mass with Sunday shopping but, for good or ill, centuries of Catholic faith remains deep in our bone marrow. Fetishising property, food, facial hair or single-source coffee are all poor distractions from a deeper truth: we are a post-Catholic people adrift, unsure of our values because we are in denial about our past and our own role in it.

So perhaps it’s time for this nation of talkers to become a land of listeners. For younger generations to listen to – without judging – older generations who faced very different choices and pressures. Or reaching out to the priests and nuns who, after a life of community service, face an old age of isolation and clan liability over the sins of a few.

I think Scally is right that the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland merits greater reflection than we have seen thus far. Whether this Confession Box initiative can stimulate that remains to be seen.

Meaningful engagement with Ireland’s religious past probably requires systematic input from representatives of both church and state, as well as the ordinary people who Scally writes about it. It probably requires something akin to the ‘transitional justice’ processes we see in states emerging from difficult and violent periods, which can include truth and reconciliation commissions or the collection of oral archives. As Scally picks up on, there’s a sense that the various public inquiries into clerical sexual abuse have not addressed the problem on a societal or cultural level.

But the so-called ordinary people might be the best place to start in coming to terms with this past. My 2016 book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, profiles examples of people who are trying to change and renew faith in Ireland – working outside or in addition to the institutional structures of the Catholic Church.

Scally seems to assume that most people in post-Catholic Ireland don’t have much faith left. My research indicates it is not as straightforward as that. Those who still have some commitment to sustaining the Catholic Church, albeit in a renewed form, might hold the key to stimulating initiatives to help the Catholic Church deal with its past.


  • Korhomme

    The Museum of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic Museum) is an interesting place. It’s clear how the population was ‘indoctrinated’ into Marxist-Leninist thought from an early age. And yet the photographs show people who seem to be genuinely happy.

    In the DDR the state provided everything for everybody; people had security and a sense of being provided for, a continuing stability, even of common purpose.

    So the comparison with Holy Catholic Ireland isn’t so far fetched. Early indoctrination and a sense of purpose, of stability and where one’s place was in the scheme of things, together with an authority figure who proffered advice and moral certainty.

    Of course, all this was accompanied by a level of control that would be unacceptable today — or ought to be. In the DDR, the Stasi kept a very close eye on you; in Ireland it was the clergy.

    So it’s no great surprise that this level of control eventually failed. What is perhaps surprising is the presence of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the ‘Ost’, the ‘East’) in older people, where certainty has been replaced by unknowns; and where a sense of being ‘guided’ by authority is replaced by the need to do-it-yourself, to find yourself. Perhaps there’s a sense of this still in older generations in Ireland.

  • Croiteir

    The fall in attendance and adherence to the Church is far more complex than that. After the deformation, Cromwell, Plantations, Williamite wars, Penal laws the Church replaced, or rather was adopted, as the nobility by the Irish people. In fact it was closer to the people than the nobility could ever be as the Church was off the people in a way that nobility never can be. This identification of the Church and Ireland remained in place until quite recently. Only in the late 20th Century, when the people of Ireland no longer had the need of the Church to replace the state did the distance between the Church and the people start to develop. Couple this with the disastrous handling of the abuse scandals caused the alarming drop in attendance.

    However when you take a closer look you can see the expectation of nationalists of the secularist/atheist view and the more extreme anti Catholic republicans expecting that Catholics will identify with their interpretation of Irishness so deep is the centuries old paradigm.

    To simply say that Catholicism is losing the Irish has to be qualified, just as the French turn to the Church in times of crises so to do the Irish. it is too deep to be destroyed or decay in a mere century or two.

  • Trasna

    Prior the famine, Catholism as practiced in Ireland bears little comparison to the Catholism the developed after the famine. The devotional decades peaked in the 1930, 40s and 50s. Prior to the famine, few people went to church, probably because there were so few Catholic churches but mostly their beliefs were still grounded in the ways of the Penal Laws and old beliefs. People were baptised, married and waked at home. That’s if they were baptized or married at all.

    Catholics were to be buried by law in Church of Ireland grounds.This did not always happen though and that’s why it’s so difficult to trace our ancestors before the famine.

    Truth be told, the Catholicism that we know is a forced concept and never did grow organically amongst the people because of colonization, wars and plantations.

    Remove the CC from education and it will be almost completely gone within a generation.

  • Trasna

    You couldn’t get a drink after midnight on Saturday night going into Sunday morning. That’s my memory of the CCs hold on me.

  • leoinlisbon

    The comparison with the DDR is far fetched.

    The DDR was entirely the creation of the foreign occupying forces which took over eastern Germany in 1945. The people never freely gave it allegiance.
    When the foreign occupiers’ forces of coercion withdrew their support, the DDR disappeared like snow off a dyke.

    For centuries Irish people freely gave their allegiance to the Catholic church. When foreign occupying forces attempted to destroy it, Irish Catholics resisted fiercely. When they left Ireland, they took their Catholicism to Britain, the Americas and Australia.

    Having grown up in an Irish Catholic family, albeit in Britain, I find the descriptions of Irish Catholicism which dominate the media today, far, far removed from my own experience.
    The idea that the Irish born clergy, who ministered to my parents, were akin to the Stasi is insulting and foolish.
    Catholicism gave people a moral code which encouraged them to behave decently. This was reinforced in Catholic schools.
    It encouraged thousands of Irishmen and women to dedicate their life to helping others across the globe.

    Underlying this anti-clericalism is the belief that previous generations of Irish people were duped – unlike the clever people of today.

  • Newman

    Agree entirely with Leoin. The error in much modern analysis is that it views events through a narrow prism. The Church has survived extreme persecution in every conceivable form. It will survive the self inflicted horrors of the abuse crisis because when properly lived Christianity presents a vision of humanity that transforms and inspires the human spirit. If the brave new world is secularism with its confining focus on autonomy and an ersatz vision then it has a limited lifespan. People don’t lay down their lives for utilitarianism

  • Korhomme

    The comparison with the DDR is interesting; two totalitarian states attempting the control of the people. You say that the Catholic moral code was “reinforced in Catholic schools”. How is that different to early indoctrination in Marxist-Leninism?

    As for Irish clergy: not so long ago, if a woman in Ireland was advised a hysterectomy by a gynaecologist, she would have to get permission from her priest. Sometimes this permission was refused. How is that not control?

  • Korhomme

    In what way were the horrors of the abuse crisis “self-inflicted”?

    What is “properly lived Christianity”? Many protestants would argue that Catholicism isn’t proper Christianity.

  • Roger

    Not too deep at all… vanishing quickly like a Gaeltacht. Fewer and fewer believe the stories about a certain Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the main explanation. People make up their own minds. For the younger generation the child sex abuse and authoritarianism of the Church really aren’t relevant to why they don’t believe. They might have been relevant to some of their parents’ generation. Even then, only a minority.

  • Roger

    Survival probably. Flourishing with priests and services in every village like in the past, never again.

  • leoinlisbon

    Your second attempt to convince me that Catholic Ireland was totalitarian is no more persuasive than the first.
    I find it worrying that so many Irish people feel a compulsion to denigrate their parents’ and grandparents’ values.

  • Korhomme

    Some views that our ancestors held would by condemned today; racism and homophobia, for example. AFAIK, none of my ancestors were slave owners, but that too was common.

  • John Collins

    It was the legislature that set the closing time of pubs. Up to about ten years ago pubs all closed, except for a Court granted extension, before midnight. Back in the seventies pubs in England closed well before midnight. I suppose the RCC will be blamed for that next.

  • John Collins

    What is ‘proper Christianity’?Every time I travel through Northern Ireland I see different protestant churches,each representing a different branch of Protestantism and each of course claiming to be the ‘proper Christian’s. BTW Protestants were not always that tolerant either.There were Protestant homes for unmarried mothers as well, like the Bethany Home in Dublin and there was not all that much compassion shown to King Edward 8, when he chose to marry a twice divorced woman. He was banished from his native Land for the reamaining 35 years of his life and had to give up his crown.

  • John Collins

    The RCC never stopped you getting a drink on Saturday night, the civil licensing laws of the country did, at least up to about 15 years ago. Back in the seventies the pubs in England closed long before midnight every night of the week. I suppose the RCC were also responsible for this.

  • Ciaran Caughey

    Hard to understand how rubbish like this can be produced.

  • Korhomme

    Edward, when king, was the Supreme Governor or head of the established Church of England. Wallis Simpson, his mistress at the time, was still married. (Wallis was the latest in a long line of mistresses; Marguerite Alibert was probably the first. She later murdered her husband in the Savoy hotel; details of her colourful past were repressed at her trial; she was acquitted.) Edward was widely seen to be under her thumb; and he was outmanouevered by the wily Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang (who wasn’t a very nice piece of work). Wallis was not only married, she was a commoner, and not acceptable to the establishment. The people might well have approved of her.

    Edward’s exile was self-imposed; he would only return to England when Wallis was given the title HRH — she never was. Just a little establishment spite.